There's a world of difference between having a strategically crafted crisis management plan in place and simply having to manage a crisis, "from the back foot." The world was served a painful reminder on the subject, by the inept and vintage cold-war era handling by Russian President Vladimir Putin, of the Kursk submarine disaster.
Blunder number one was the (then) strangely paunchy Putin not cancelling his holiday to, guideline number one: Be there. The most senior possible person must always be dusted off and wheeled out. The level of seniority demonstrates the seriousness with which the issue is viewed.
The Russians are still locked into a quasi cold war mentality. In which anything to do with the military is shrouded in a fog of disinformation. That might have worked OK in USSR days, but in the days of the media-enabled global village, there's no place for inept "spokespeople" adding to confusion and grief. Guideline number two is: Tell the truth. There is no possibility of having to argue later, like so many politicians, that you were "misquoted" or that your comments were "taken out of context." Telling the truth, up front, is the simplest and most effective way of defusing public hostility, however vexatious the issue.
Many corporates fall into the trap of, "we can fix this ourselves." Sometimes you can't. When it's something requiring outside or specialised help, it's better to bring in early, an excess of help, rather than too little, or none. Your public, whoever they may be, will always be impressed by your "all hands on deck" approach.
Guideline number three is: Tell them what you're doing to fix it. Bring the families or close ones of victims, or those affected, to the heart of the operations control area if possible and safe. Accommodate and feed them. Provide them with communications to family and friends. Above all else, keep them fully briefed. Think of then-Mayor of New York, Rudi Giuliani, and his tireless communication with the media and those affected by September 11th 2001. Corporate heads around the world can learn from his example. Provide counselling, support and any other facilities that might be needed to help the affected to cope. Airlines now have this down to a formula.
So, guideline number four: Handle those affected, with utmost sensitivity. Expect and treat their emotive outbursts with empathy. They're "normal", given the circumstances. A South African case in point is the insensitive media statement made by the Everite (they of asbestos products notoriety) "Reputation Management" spokesperson, via the media, to the bereaved, in defence of his client. He said something to the effect that "the circumstances surrounding the death are most unfortunate, but future statements will be made only within the strict confines of the law." That truly is, as the Zulu aphorism says, "speaking out of both sides of the mouth."
Company responses such as this and those from Cape PLC - also involved in slow-and-painful-death, asbestosis claims-related issues, don't win themselves any friends with such undiplomatic, cavalier, hide-behind-the-legal-veil pronouncements. Remember that potential investors today look to your triple bottom line of fiscal, social and environmental performance and sensitivity. Companies exhibiting scant regard for their past ill-doings, deserve to go bust.
If ever there is a need for unambiguous, simple, clear communication, this is it. Set up a communications task force and ensure that they're all at the same stage of familiarity on the situation, at all times. Guideline five is: Sing off the same, simple, song sheet. There's nothing more awful than conflicting views or "updates" on the situation. This can do image and share price damage and anger the public - as did the Russians, or years previously, those mismanaging the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Alaska. It will look as if you don't know what's going on and haven't got a handle on the situation. Which clearly will be the case.
Guideline six is: Come up real quick with A plan showing how you propose to avoid a repeat in the future. Think of the French authorities and the Concorde crash. They swung speedily into action - for which air crash investigations are not renowned - and along with British Airways, grounded all Concordes until designers came up with a fuel tank protection solution.
Guideline seven says: Don't be tempted to lie or "cover" for the boss or the corporation. South African National Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has made a right royal dolt of herself, by refusing to make HIV/AIDS-related statements at odds with those of President Thabo Mbeki. This guideline is not in conflict with the "sing off the same song sheet" dictum. It's a warning to remember that your responsibility does not include "covering" for someone else's maverick stance. When they're discredited, so will you be. This may pose a moral and career dilemma for you. Look long-term before you act.
Guideline eight is: Go the added mile. Deliver the unexpected, go beyond the requirements of the situation. Set up a trust. Establish a bursary fund. Create an institution. Shell, Sappi, Sasol and numerous other environmental sinners have very cleverly implemented wild life, ornithological or other environmental awareness programs. You may have noticed the inordinately frequent flighting of Shell "environmental friendliness" commercials during Discovery Channel's damp-squib Egyptian, "drill through the pyramid wall" broadcast. These "show that they care" about the environment, right? Well, that stuff works on unthinking people, even if it does mean sailing a tad close to the wind at times. Thank God for Greenpeace though, to keep the record straight.
Guideline nine: When it's good, localise or take credit for it. When it's bad, globalise it and "share the problem." Example: You've had (as did Shoprite Checkers, following the acquisition of OK Bazaars) a dreadful year, because OK Bazaars "shrinkage" had dented their bottom line. Globalise by stating quite truthfully that no retail chain in the world is impervious to staff theft. Tell 'em that the people in the newly acquired company were disaffected and demotivated and hence, destructive. Then localise, and say what you've done to reassure and remotivate the staff, and improve the security aspect. So you're sharing the bad and claiming the good. You should not attempt to do this dishonestly, or hide the real story. It's simply being candid - but intelligently so. Tony Blair did this well, when discussing the intoxicated and very public behaviour of his errant son, Euan.
Guideline ten is: The media is your umbilical cord to your public. You need to be available to the women and men of the media day and night. You should set up a media crisis centre. Appropriately catered with food, plenty of caffeine and non-alcoholic beverages. The American mine management and their State Governor did well with the coal-mine cave-in in Pennsylvania. TV viewers valued seeing the pale, drawn, exhausted, bags-under-the-eyes Governor, investing some "sweat equity."
As they did, you should have someone senior and diplomatic from your corporate affairs team, on duty at all times. Don't be smart with the media. Don't try to feed them "spin." Don't think you can manipulate them. Don't put them down, or belittle their perspectives. The better you keep them in the loop, the less vitriolic they're likely to be. You need them at this time more than any other. How you treat them will be reciprocated. If you don't already have a media relations program underway, you'd better start one. You don't know when you're going to need it. Don't use a crisis as your getting-to-know-the-media opportunity.
The bottom line? What I call the "three A's." Acknowledge or admit to the situation. Specify what Action you're taking right now to contain or repair the damage. Tell them what you're going to do to Avoid a repeat in the future. If you don't, you might well be blowing the accumulated benefits of your combined marketing, advertising, and communications budgets and efforts, in one fell swoop. You don't have to.